Saturday, 16 January 2021

Best Reads of 2020 Part One - Indian Contemporary Fiction

I had planned to spend all of last September in India. For obvious reasons I couldn't go and so instead I  visited vicariously by immersing myself in contemporary Indian fiction. I have previously enjoyed the works of Kushwant Singh, Hassan Sadat Manto, Anita Desai, Rohinton Mistry, Bapsi Sidhwa and others but thanks to The Scroll I have discovered several new authors from different communities and from different parts of India. The books I enjoyed most share a number of themes - the vulnerability of outsiders of various kinds, friendship, betrayal and relationships between the classes, sexes, rich and poor. These are universal themes and can be found in the literature of most countries, but the five books included in this post explore them in a specifically Indian context.

Megha Majumdar's debut novel, A Burning, was one of my most engaging reads of the year. Set in the author's home city of Kolkata, the story begins just after an horrific terror attack has taken place. It revolves around three main characters, Jivan who lives in the slum but has dreams of a good job and a better life; her friend and neighbour, Lovely, who also has an ambition to leave the slum and to be a success in Bollywood and PT Sir, Jivan's former sports teacher. Jivan helps Lovely to improve her chances by teaching her English and whilst at school was well liked by PT Sir due to her sporting abilities. Although she has ambition she is young and naive and becomes implicated in the attack when the police examine the contents of her beloved mobile telephone. As the story unfolds, the moral character of both Lovely and PT Sir are tested as they are forced to compromise between helping Jivan or pursuing their own desires. All three are outsiders in their own way. Jivan is a Muslim, Lovely is a Hijra and PT Sir is not well regarded at his school. Lovely and PT Sir have both been fond of Jivan but when choices arise between opportunities to improve their lives or to forgo them and instead help her, their loyalty is put to the test.

Majumdar builds the tension as the story progresses, raising and then dashing hopes at various times,  as the story moves to its shocking denouement. Throughout, she exposes the hierarchies that govern every day life, at work, at home, even in prison. She studied in the United States and now lives in New York where she works as an editor at Catapult. Her book has received substantial praise from some very big names. Amitav Ghosh describes it as "...the best debut novel I have come across in a long time..." and Yaa Gyasi called it "An excellently crafted, utterly thrilling novel full of characters I won't soon forget". A Burning was long listed for the 2020 JCB Prize and shortlisted for the 2021 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. It might just be my book of 2020.

Hansda Sowendra Shekhar, author of My Father's Garden also writes about outsiders. He is a doctor as well as being an accomplished writer who has published three novels and a book of short stories. Born in Ranchi, the capital city of Jharkand in north-east India, he is a member of the Santhal ethnic group  who are one of the Adivasi or tribal communities. He is also gay. His writing explores the lives of the Santhal and neighbouring communities, the various social problems they face and their suffering at the hands of multi-nationals who wish to use the mineral-rich Adivasi lands for profit, forcing out the Santhal and other groups. Some of his short stories have provoked controversy amongst his own community due to the candid depiction of sex, prostitution and other issues. This led to calls for his brilliant collection of short stories - The Adivasi Will Not Dance - to be banned. 

My Father's Garden has also encountered controversy as it tells the story of a young gay Santhal doctor, his search for love and companionship and the difficulties of managing the expectations of his family and community. The first half of the book details the highs and lows of an affair with a fellow medical student and the different understanding, needs and wants that the two of them have from their relationship. The second half tells the story of a platonic friendship with the head clerk of the hospital where our hero is posted and how this changes over time to leave him disillusioned when his corrupt nature is exposed. The story explores several themes including the search for love, rejection, disappointment and the condition of being a permanent outsider even in one's home or family.

India's small but accomplished Parsi community has provided several writers who have achieved international recognition. Canada based Rohinton Mistry has scooped numerous awards for his epic novels of Parsi family life whilst Bapsi Sidhwa, born in Karachi when it was still part of an undivided India, has also achieved international recognition with two of her books being the basis for successful films. Last year I discovered another Parsi writer - Thrity Umrigar. Born in Mumbai she moved to the United States at the age of 21 and her stories are set in both India and her adopted country. 

I enjoyed two of her novels in 2020 - The Space Between Us and The Secrets Between Us. Set in Mumbai, they chart the relationships between Sera Dubash, a wealthy Parsi widow who survived an unhappy and sometimes violent marriage and her illiterate maid, Bhima who has her own sad story and who works to enable her orphaned grand daughter, Maya, to attend college. Umrigar cleverly contrasts the lives of the two women - Sera living in comfort in a beautiful apartment in a wealthy part of the city, Bhima scraping by in a small house in one of Mumbai's slums. Over many years they have shared an unspoken understanding of the other's secrets, yet still Bhima is not permitted to sit on the furniture she polishes every day and although she cooks Sera's meals she may not eat from the same plates or drink from the same cups. Umrigar contrast the lives of the two women which although very different materially are similar in many ways. Both had unsuccessful marriages and both choose to live their lives for their children or grandchildren. Both keep up pretences, Sera that her marriage was happy and Bhima that although she may live in a slum, she is not of it. Despite this, when a crisis arrives in the shape of a new and dreadful secret, this "nearly" friendship is placed under unbearable pressure in which themes of loyalty, truth, betrayal and redemption are examined. The books also capture something of the spirit of Mumbai. I especially enjoyed the scenes on Juhu beach, where Bhima and Maya go for fresh air and to temporarily escape their poverty and where both Bhima and Sera revisit memories of happier times.

Annie Zaidi is a journalist, novelist and playwright. Originally from Allahabad, she is not the first acclaimed writer in the family. Her maternal grandfather was Urdu Laureate, Ali Jawad Zaidi. Her most recent work, Prelude To A Riot uses a series of soliloquies, interspersed with clever use of poems, news reports and advertisements to tell the story of a South Indian village where religious intolerance threatens to destroy long established friendships between Hindus and Muslims. The soliloquies give voice to a range of opinions across age, class, sex and religious boundaries, giving depth to each character and background to the relationships and connections between them. 

Developing her theme of growing intolerance, Zaidi seems to make reference to what has become known as cancel culture. When the local newspaper publishes an anonymous poem, the recently formed Self Respect Forum, writes to the editor, objecting to its inclusion, claiming it makes disrespectful reference to a deity and also because too much space has been devoted to it "...the forum feels strongly that this much space need not be devoted to cultural inputs, especially on weekdays". The female editor writes a robust response "We must not forget that anybody who seeks to block the flow of ideas or people, creates artificial hurricanes" and suggests they visit the much neglected local museum where ancient statues depict the said deity in the same way as the poet. The Forum fail in their attempt to prevent further poems being published but are nonetheless outraged.

This relatively short but extremely powerful novel also exposes the discrimination faced by migrant workers who are paid less than the locals, not allowed to live in certain neighbourhoods and vulnerable to violent attacks. In Devaki's soliloquy she hears her father angrily describing his workers as "bloody illegals" before acknowledging that they are "cheap hands". Devaki asks "Does Appa (father) ask which side of the border they come from when he's bargaining like the devil himself to pay just half the government rate?". Resentment, jealousy, fear and denial fill the pages of this book which as the title indicates, does not end in a riot, but it is clear that something dark is likely to happen. Prelude To A Riot was shortlisted for the 2020 JCB Prize.  

My final choice in this, the first of two posts on my best reads of 2020 is the superb Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara. The Kerala born author is also a journalist has won numerous awards for her reports on the impact of poverty and religious violence on the education of children. This is her first novel. 

Djinn Patrol is the story of a series of child disappearances as seen through the eyes of three young friends - Jai aged nine and addicted to reality police shows, his studious friend Pari who is the only girl of the trio,  and Faiz who although still of school age has to work to help his family. The friends attempt to solve the mystery of the missing children taken from their slum in one of India's cities. The Purple Line of the title refers to the city's metro system and the Djinn comes from Faiz' idea that the children have been spirited away by one of these creatures. Pari is dismissive of his idea and Jai decides to undertake an investigation into what is really happening.

The parents and relatives of the missing children are treated with thinly disguised contempt by the authorities and the police show no interest in finding missing slum children. Local politicians attempt to make political capital from the misfortune of those gone missing and this has some impact within the community with neighbours becoming suspicious and threatening to turn on each other.

The writer sets the context by detailing the realities of slum life where many residents struggle to feed themselves and their families. Then there are the daily indignities of  having to use overflowing communal toilets, queuing for water early in the morning and the total absence of privacy. As if to emphasise the poverty, the slum is adjacent to a series of high rise luxury apartment blocks where the city's wealthy live behind high walls protected by security guards. Many of the women who live in the slum work in the homes of the wealthy madams, cooking and cleaning for them and looking after their children. The apartment dwellers and their less fortunate neighbours are linked in an economic relationship but as the story unfolds there may be other links too.

In the afterward of the book, Anappara writes that every day in India 180 children go missing. A disappearance will only make the news if the perpetrator is caught or if there are what she describes as "graphic details" surrounding the crime. She reports being struck by the total absence of the childrens' voices in these cases, which is why the format of her book is unusual. It places the children at the front of the story, not only the young detectives who search in the dangerous bazar and foggy narrow neighbourhood lanes, but also the missing. We meet them before they disappear. We know who they are and we care about them. 

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line has been recognised with a string of awards including the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, the Bridport/ Peggy Chapman-Andrews Award and the Deborah Rodgers Foundation Award. it has also been shortlisted for  the JCB Prize and the Women's Prize For Fiction. I must also mention the very striking design of the UK edition's cover, the work of Suzanne Dean, and although I know the old adage about books and covers, this one certainly catches the eye. 

Regular followers of this blog will know that reading is one of my passions. Although it is hard to feel positive about 2020, having to stay at home for much of the time meant I was able to indulge that passion even more than usual. Another post featuring five (or maybe a few more) titles is coming soon!

You might also like Essential Items And Other Tales From A Land In Lockdown

Friday, 1 January 2021

Travels With My Camera 2020 - The Best Pictures

I had big travel plans for 2020. For obvious reasons most of them did not come to fruition, including a first time visit to Angola and a return to India. However, I did manage to travel a little before everything stopped. I spent a few days in Bangkok at the beginning of the year en route to my third visit to Myanmar. I also made my annual Israel visit but had to cut things short when it became obvious that air travel was grinding to a halt. This resulted in my doing significantly less photography than in previous years. It also meant that lockdown permitting, I spent some time in the streets of London looking for interesting shots much closer to home.

The pictures included in this post are some of my personal favourites from 2020. Others have been particularly well received on social media or at the exhibition I was able to hold at the Jeannie Avent Gallery in Dulwich, South London in August. This sixth incarnation of my Travels With My Camera show was the most successful so far. It was a great location and a rewarding experience. I enjoyed talking to visitors, listening to their feedback and learning from the advice of some of the more experienced photographers who came along. I had planned another exhibition in the cafe gallery of the Queen's Theatre in Hornchurch but this, like much else, fell victim to the lockdown.

Bilone and her grandson, Kasae Kum, Kayah State, Myanmar

Pop Nyat Khaing school for nuns, Loikaw, Myanmar 

Despite the disruption to my plans, 2020 provided me with some new experiences. In Myanmar I visited Kayah State for the first time and spent time in villages only recently opened up to overseas visitors. This included spending time with several members of the Kayah ethnic group who gave me free reign to photograph them going about their daily activities. The picture of Bilone with one of her grandchildren is perhaps my favourite picture of the trip, if not of the year. I was struck by the easy and obvious affection between grandmother and grandchild and how comfortable they were together. I also loved the way the light fell on Bilone's face, illuminating her love for the child. 

Still in Kayah State, I visited a school for young nuns in Loikaw. Many of the girls are orphans or from families unable to look after them. They are placed in the nunnery where they will be fed, cared for and receive at least some education. Many of the children were shy, but one girl in particular was fascinated by the camera. She grinned at me and pulled faces before turning back to her work. She then turned round once more just as a patch of light fell on the wall behind her. And that was the shot. 

Shy flower seller, Yangon

Breakfast at the wholesale fish market, Yangon

Yangon is one of my favourite cities and once again I enjoyed early morning expeditions to the various wholesale markets, photographing the workers going about their daily tasks as well as capturing some interesting portraits. I especially like the picture of the shy flower seller who was at first reluctant to be photographed, but then changed his mind and approached me whilst carrying a huge bunch of white flowers, hiding just a little of his face being them. The woman seen ladling food from her bowl in the picture below was enjoying her breakfast in the wholesale fish market when I saw her. The Yangon based watercolorist and my good friend, Sai Pyae Sone Aye, used this photograph as inspiration for one of his beautiful works. I look forward to seeing it next time we meet.

Still in Myanmar, I visited the city of Mawlamyine for the first time. I happily spent a couple of days wandering through its narrow lanes and markets and am keen to return at the earliest opportunity. It was here that I came across a young man working on a new well, pumping muddy water from the ground in an area where instant access to clean water is not guaranteed. He is pictured below.

A new well, Mawlamyine, Myanmar

Alone in a crowd, Meah Shearim, Jerusalem, Israel

I love portrait photography and am especially attracted to informal portraits where the subject has less opportunity to hide their true mood or feelings. I particularly like three portraits from 2020. The first is of a young Jewish man taken during the Purim celebrations in Meah Shearim, Jerusalem. This is an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood and photography is normally unwelcome there, but during Purim with the right approach and some contacts it is possible. Purim is a chaotic time in Meah Shearim. People wear costumes or disguises and alcohol consumption is encouraged - at least amongst the men. This young man seemed alone in the crowd, slightly apart from the celebrations and although physically present, somehow absent. I wonder what his story is.

The second portrait I've chosen from last year is of a little girl in Bangkok. I noticed her sitting with her grandmother on the step of a shop house in the Klong Toey market. Noticing the camera, and much to her grandmother's amusement, she began to laugh, wave and pose before finally leaning standing quietly against the house gate which framed her face perfectly. In this quiet moment she is somehow similar to the young man in Jerusalem, lost in thought, no longer with us.

My third choice is a portrait of Bilot, another Kayah woman and friend of Bilone featured in the picture at the top of this post. I spent some time talking to her before taking the camera out. She was optimistic and funny. She offered me home made rice wine and betel leaf and teased me about traveling alone. I think this portrait captures the self she showed me during our conversation.

The dreamer, Klong Toey, Bangkok, Thailand

Bilot laughing, Kasae Kum, Kayah State, Myanmar

On the way to the flea market, Sclater Street, London

After my Myanmar/ Bangkok and Israel trips I had a long spell where I hardly picked up my camera. I fell ill in late March and took several weeks to recover and of course, the national lockdown much reduced the opportunity for my preferred kind of photography. However once the initial lockdown was lifted, I made several weekend visits to Spitalfields, close to my home in East London. The Sunday fleamarket market and nearby shops act as a magnet for many young, fashion conscious visitors. They also attract many local people who have lived in the area either their whole life or for many years. The pictures above and below were taken in Sclater Street near the market and represent the different audiences it attracts. 

On the catwalk, Sclater Street, London

I originally intended to include just ten pictures in this post but whilst drafting it I decided to indulge myself and include two more shots from my time in Jerusalem. One shows an ultra-Orthodox Jewish boy entertaining himself whilst his father (not pictured) says his prayers at the Kotel (also known as the Western Wall and the Wailing Wall). I liked the interplay between the lines on his sweatshirt and those of the stacked chairs, as well as his stylised movement. The second picture is of a teenager, sunlight on his face and the worse for wear after over indulging at Purim. 

When you get bored waiting for your dad, Jerusalem, Israel

Too much to drink at Purim, Meah Shearim, Jerusalem, Israel

Thank you if you came to my Jeannie Avent Gallery exhibition, or if you follow me on various social media. I hope to see you again soon. Happy New Year to everyone.

If you are interested in any of these pictures please contact me at

You might also like Purim in Meah Shearim or Meeting the Kayah Women of Myanmar

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Please note: All rights reserved. None of these images may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without my prior written permission.

Thursday, 17 December 2020

Frank Herriot Risdon and a Modernist find in Kent

Fort Grenham, Minnis Bay, Kent

Earlier this year I spent a few days exploring the delights of Kent including Margate, Ramsgate and Birchington-on-Sea. Birchington is home to the wonderful Twentieth Century art deco house, built in 1935 and now a superb bed and breakfast hotel. There are a few other deco buildings not far from Twentieth Century including Fort Grenham, built in 1936 and designed by architect Frank Herriot Risdon. The house was built for one Harry Vivien Ward and the Kelly's Directory of the Isle of Thanet for 1939 confirms him living there. Ward was a local notable and served as a Councillor then Alderman on the former Margate Corporation as well as being Mayor in 1953/54. No doubt Fort Grenham saw many important guests during this period.

This impressive, four bedroom house appears to have retained its original crittal windows and has a roof terrace which must command excellent views as the building faces the sea. However, at least externally, it is in poor shape and in need of some loving care. This seems to be a long standing issue as Thanet Council's minutes from April 2013 note that a Section 215 notice had been served on the property. According to UK legislation, a local planning authority can serve such a notice where the condition of land or buildings adversely affects the amenity of the area, requiring the owner to deal with the poor state of a building. 

Risdon was not an architect I had come across before but a little research revealed him to be both accomplished and a bit of a character. Born in Brixton, South London in 1913, he was named after his father who had fought in the Boer War and the First World War. Perhaps inspired by having received drawing lessons from a cousin, he went on to study at the former North London Polytechnic in Holloway, where he later taught. He chartered in 1936 and had the great fortune to find work with Frederick Gibberd who designed Pullman Court, an iconic modernist group of apartment buildings in Streatham. Indeed, Risdon drew the plans for Pullman Court, a project that perhaps inspired one or two of his later works, despite his initially being more enamoured of the classicist Italianate style. His commitment to modernism is further evidenced by him having built a house for himself in this style. Like Fort Grenham it was built in 1935 and was located in Beckenham, then in Kent, now amalgamated into Bromley in South London. I have been unable to locate this house, or even to confirm that it still stands, so if anyone reading this has details please share them in the comments below!

Pullman Court, Streatham, London

The Second World War began just three years after Fort Grenham was built and Risdon saw active service in the Navy in Norway and Greece and was also involved in the action at Salerno, Italy in 1943. After the War he formed a partnership with Alec Shingler and together they designed Hertford's Castle Hall and Dunstable' Civic Centre as well as shopping centres in Glasgow (Drumchapel) and Jarrow, the Herbarium at Kew, and the University of the South Bank premises at Wandsworth. Other projects included the London Nautical School and Audley Square Garage in Mayfair, Central London.

Risdon had a long working life, combining managing his architectural practice with a senior role at North London Polytechnic. He appears to have been popular with his students, several of whom went on to work for him, but at least one of them was not completely comfortable with his approach. In his autobiography, architect Thomas Saunders claims that Risdon "coerced many of his fourth and fifth year students to produce drawings and details for his private work for the odd five or ten pounds". As with many things there are two ways of looking at this. Saunders clearly considered it to be taking advantage but others may have seen it as a chance to get experience of working on a live project and this seems to have resulted in a least some of them gaining paid employment at a later date. Saunders goes on to say that "everyone had to be a cardboard replica of himself. One was either a dedicated disciple or discarded". Despite this, he admits he admired Risdon's work, which is perhaps more important than views on his personality. 

Frank Herriot Risdon died in December 2005. He had worked as an architect for sixty years, not retiring until 1996, at the age of 83. In addition to this architectural work, teaching and naval careers, he continued to paint throughout his life and to take an interest in local planning issues. It is a shame that Fort Grenham, one of the first buildings he was fully responsible for has not been better preserved.

You might also like Twentieth Century - Art Deco in Birchington-on-sea

Thursday, 26 November 2020

Essential items and Other Tales from a Land in Lockdown - Stories from the pandemic

My plan for September had been to spend the whole month in India. For obvious reasons I wasn't able to go and instead traveled vicariously through the pages of contemporary works of fiction by Indian writers. This proved to be a journey of discovery made from my armchair and through the pages of some great books by, amongst others, Deepa Anappara,  Megha Majumdar and Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar. Most recently I have been reading Essential Items and Other Tales from a Land in Lockdown by Udayan Mukherjee. This collection of ten short stories, all of which take place during the Covid crisis, describes the lockdown experiences of different levels of society but with common themes running though them.

Perhaps the strongest of these themes is that of the outsider. Some are literal outsiders, such as those that live in the street outside the gated communities of the better off, dependant on and waiting for acts of charity in order to survive. And there other, more surprising outsiders, such as the one in a group of wealthy young professionals, whose anger at the virtual signalling charitable work of his friends boils over during a forbidden drinks party. But the most moving and striking example of the outsider, is dealt with in the penultimate tale - Homecoming. When India's lockdown was announced at just four hours notice, millions of internal migrant workers began desperate attempts to reach their home areas rather than being stranded without work or funds in the larger cities. As transport ground to a halt amidst frantic scenes at bus and train terminals, many of these workers began to walk hundreds of miles in order to get home. The un-named narrator of Homecoming tells the story of his return from Gujarat to his village in Uttarakhand. Seemingly cheated of his savings being held "for safekeeping" by his boss, he finds himself, together with many other returnees, held in a camp, separated from the locals to prevent the spread of infection and then forced to stand in line under the watchful eye of baton wielding police, three feet apart from his companions, whilst waiting to be loaded on to a special train. The combination of camps and trains is chilling for historical reasons but equally disturbing is the cold and suspicious welcome some received on reaching their villages, where the locals perhaps rightfully so, were fearful of the virus having been brought from the city to their homes.

Other stories in the collection show a more positive approach to the outsider and the power of the occasional kindness of strangers. In Shelter from The Storm, another group of migrant workers passing through Kolkata get caught in a storm (that really did take place) and sit outside the gates of a formerly wealthy family. Hoping for assistance they are met with a surprising response, whilst in Border Town, a stranded traveller is taken in by an elderly man and his grandson, despite opposition from their neighbours. 

Other stories demonstrate the author's skills in capturing the less public impact of the lockdown on a variety of lives. His characters include an older woman who may or may not have dementia, two funeral workers in Varanasi, worried at the prospect of catching the virus from the bodies they are paid to cremate and the women who clean the houses of the wealthy who one by one were asked not to come to work in case they brought the infection with them and who then worry about their ability to survive without work. The stories are firmly set in India and relate to Indian themes and society but the issues they tackle are universal and will be familiar to readers almost everywhere.

The author was born in Kolkata and previously worked in TV, covering the financial markets. He is also the author of two previous novels. As with several of the books I have enjoyed this year, I came across a review for Essential Items on which is not only a news site but also contains extensive coverage of India's arts scene including specialist sections on books and cinema. Try something different - have look!

Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Sclater Street - full of history and a hot spot for street photography

Sclater Street runs from Bethnal Green Road near the Shoreditch Overground Station to the junction with Brick Lane. Quiet and almost abandoned during the week it comes alive on Sunday when there is a flea-market on a rough piece of ground normally used as a car park. The street is closed to traffic and stalls of varying degrees of authority sell household goods, second hand clothes, training shoes and bicycle parts. Its also possible to buy a bicycle from one of the several dealers who stand outside the flea-market and who are subject to regular checks by police looking for "lost" bikes. The Sunday crowd fascinates me. In normal times it includes many tourists on their way to Brick Lane or to Spitalfields' covered market as well as local old timers, hipsters, students and occasional film crews who like the "edgy" urban environment. It is also possible to hear many different languages being spoken with Bengali, Arabic, French, Hebrew, Spanish, Japanese, Italian, Russian and Turkish, reflecting both the local communities and the tourists. In recent years a handful of restaurants, small cafes and the relocated Brick Lane Gallery have added to the eclectic mix and attract yet more visitors.

The street has an interesting history. On the left hand side of the road when walking from Brick Lane towards Bethnal Green Road, there are three weavers' houses, built from 1718-1720. The original inhabitants would have been Huguenots, French protestant refugees fleeing religious persecution. In London many of them were employed in the textile industry. Numbered 70-74 Sclater Street, each house consists of three storeys and a cellar with a single room on each floor. The houses are in a disgraceful condition, covered in graffiti and seemingly abandoned. They back on to and are part of the Bishopsgate Goodsyard site which I understand is the subject of an office development proposal. Whatever the implications of this for the weavers' houses, they are already at risk due to their condition. The website of Chris Dyson architects contains information about a plan to restore the facades but dates from 2013 with no more recent details.

When researching for this piece I came across Sclater Street's entry for the 1891 Census which includes a full listing of all residents in the three houses. Number 70 was home to the Hall family, the head of which, James, aged 44, is listed as a "bird dealer-dog". Nine people lived there including James' brother Daniel aged 22, also employed as a bird dealer-dog and one Caroline Lambert aged 68, listed as a bird dealer. All the residents of number 70 were born in London, most of them in the East End. 

Number 72 was home to seven people including brothers Domenico and Donatio Puncia, both born in Dorigo, Italy. Domenico aged 31 is listed as a restaurant keeper and his brother, a year older, as a cook. The brothers shared the property with six members of the Waters family. William Waters, 28 worked as a stone mason and his wife Mary Ann, 27, was a needle woman. The youngest member of the household was their daughter Mary, just two weeks old. Like the Halls next door, the Waters family were all born in the East End, most of them in Bethnal Green.

Number 74 was home to nine people, most of them members of the Stanwich family. 30 years old Abraham, a picture framer was listed as head of the household. His wife Rachael was a little older than him at 33 and together they had four small children - Judah, Annie, Amy and Alice. Other residents included Abrahams' younger brothers Hyman and Meyer -  a picture framer and a tailor respectively. The other resident was a 22 year old woman listed as "Cohen Kitty" whose name was almost certainly  mistakenly inverted in the records, "Kitty Cohen" being more likely. She worked in the tailoring industry as a button hole maker. The older members of the family have "Russia-Poland" listed as their birthplaces the others were born locally. Their names indicate that the family was Jewish. 

The records for other buildings in the street show that other residents came from Lancashire, Birmingham, Dorset and Wales as well as from Austria and Poland. Occupations listed include boot makers, hatters, cabinet makers, beer house keeper, fancy bird cage maker, ship foreman and numerous jobs connected with the garment industry. This street must have many stories to tell.

The occupations listed for James, Daniel and Caroline at number 70 give a clue as to why they were living in Sclater Street. From the 1850's onwards people came here to see the Bird Fair. Originally located in nearby Club Row it expanded across Bethnal Green Road as time went on. Birds and dogs were traded and there was widespread belief that some dogs being sold at the Fair were "hot" property. There is even a record of a 1912 court case relating to a stolen dog found there. By the 1920's as well as birds and dogs, cats, rabbits, mice, squirrels, tortoises and various other animals were being sold at the Fair. In 1923 a stampede involving up to 4,000 people resulted in the loss of 2000 birds and the death of at least 100 cats and dogs. You can read more about the Bird Fair and see pictures of Sclater Street from the early 1900's here.

Coming back to today, Sclater Street continues to fascinate and tell stories. It is perhaps my favourite London location for both people watching and street photography. I like to find a sport and watch the comings and goings as the weekend drama plays out over several hours. Its proximity to Brick Lane, Spitalfields Market and what remains of Petticoat Lane means that I can move between these locations quickly and also take advantage of the many coffee and snack stalls. The pictures featured in this post are all recent candid shots taken on Sclater Street. They include at least one candidate for the cat walk, an elderly woman wheeling her goods to her favourite spot before spreading them out for sale, a conversation between a director and an actor during a filming session and of course several mask wearers. Some of the pictures feature a backdrop of colourful posters, some of them scrawled with graffiti. The wall on which those posters are displayed is the facade of the aforementioned weavers houses.

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Friday, 4 September 2020

Twentieth Century - Art Deco in Birchington-on-sea

Birchington-on-sea is a large village in Kent not far from the larger seaside towns of Margate, Ramsgate and Whitstable and the historical city of Canterbury. It is a short walk from the stunning scenery of Minnis Bay and home to one of Britain's most elegant Art Deco homes. 

In 1935, local builder Chas Hawkes designed and oversaw the construction of an Art Deco building in Birchington. It was to be a home for him and his wife Kathleen and would also have an office for her Minnis Bay Estate Agency. When completed it would have been the epitome of modernism with its striking white exterior, crittall windows, delightful curves and subtle decorative references to the Art Deco "rule of three". Perhaps to emphasise its modernity the couple named their new home Twentieth Century.

The Hawkes lived there for several years until for reasons unknown, they moved to another home just a short step away. They were not the only notable people to have lived in the house. In 1962 Tudor Gates, author, playwright, screenwriter and Trade Unionist acquired the property and lived there until 1986. During that time he wrote a number of TV scripts and screenplays including Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust For A Vampire (1971) and Twins of Evil (1971) - all of them for Hammer, the famed horror film company. He also contributed to the script of Barbarella (1968) and to the TV series The Avengers, The Sweeney and The Saint. Gates changed the building's name to The White House, a name it retained until just a few years ago.

As well as changes of name and ownership, the house was subject to a number of  physical alterations over the years. Kathleen Hawkes' estate agency office originally occupied what is today the breakfast room and had a door leading directly to the garden, enabling the main entry to be retained for private use only. This door disappeared at some point as did the original crittall glazing and the elegant Minnis Bay Estate Agency lettering on the office facade. The original design included stunning squared-off, wrap around windows at the front of the building and sadly these were also removed at some point. Not only this, the lintels installed to support the wall above the windows were removed making it difficult and expensive to reverse this at a later date. The house came on the market in 2011 and Wowhaus, the website devoted to Art Deco and modernist architecture wrote scathingly about the changes describing them as "how no to do it" rather than "wow". At about this time, the house became a bed and breakfast hotel.

Today the wow is well and truly back thanks to current owners Kat Webb and Spencer Stedman who purchased the property in November 2017 after having stayed there as a treat for Spencer's birthday. Both of them have been serious Art Deco collectors for several years and Kat even has an Art Deco dolls house given to her in her childhood! On taking possession they not only restored the original name to the house but undertook significant restoration work to bring it back to its original splendour. This labour of love resulted in them receiving the 2019 Raven Award from the Birchington Heritage Trust.

Today the Twentieth Century Bed and Breakfast is a wonderful place to stay, not only for Art Deco enthusiasts but for anyone wishing to explore this part of Kent with its beaches and other natural and historical attractions.  It has four themed rooms including the Baron and Lady Carson Art Deco suite which is named after the owners of the land on which the house sits. The Tudor Gates room has a collection of posters and other items related to Gates' career and the Amy Johnson room is filled with memorabilia commemorating the famous aviator. The David Bowie room is a tribute to the musical superstar who performed in nearby Margate and who is known to have visited the area as a child. The idea behind the themed rooms is that they reflect different periods with the twentieth century and commemorate people with links to the house and the area. 

Kat and Spencer have displayed items from their Art Deco collections in the common areas of the house and during my recent stay they kindly showed me their wonderful collection of photographs. These include images of the original exterior and of Chas and Kathleen Hawkes and the labourers who worked on the building. They are extremely knowledgable about Art Deco and were very happy to show me Hawkes' original architectural drawings and to share stories about the building's history. They are also wonderful hosts who serve a great breakfast which includes herbs, tomatoes and other fruit grown in their garden. Why would you want to stay anywhere else?

You can find more details about Twentieth Century on their website.

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Monday, 24 August 2020

Whitechapel Library - University of the Ghetto

Twenty two London public libraries and cultural facilities have borne the name of Victorian journalist, philanthropist and politician John Passmore Edwards (1823-1911). His particular interest in funding public libraries may have been due to his reportedly having access to few books as a child. The first London library he funded was the former Whitechapel Library, now absorbed into Whitechapel Art Gallery at 77-82 Whitechapel High Street.

It opened its doors on 9th May 1892, the construction costs of £6454 being fully provided by Passmore Edwards but this was not the first attempt to provide a public library in this part of London. The Public Libraries Act of 1850 had followed a Select Committee report that suggested libraries could be used to steer people towards "temperate and moderate habits". Despite strong opposition to the Act from some MPs, it was eventually passed. The Act allowed for levying a charge on the rates of a half-penny in the £ in order to ensure continued funding. Such proposals had to be put to the vote locally before a free public library could be established and in 1878 the voters of Whitechapel rejected adopting the legislation, opposed to providing a facility "...wherein idle people may enjoy themselves".

Samuel Barnett, social reformer and Vicar of St. Jude's Church and his wife Henrietta, co-founder of Toynbee Hall campaigned for a library in Whitechapel but in 1891 Passmore Edwards came forward with the necessary sum.  A site was identified and architects Potts, Son and Hemmings were engaged to design the building. Initial services included a closed-access lending service, separate reading rooms for boys and girls and a reference library. Closed access meant that readers had to ask a member of staff to check the availability of books for them rather than having direct access to the stock. This was common practice in the early days of public libraries. There was also a museum of the natural history collections of the Reverend Dan Greatorex who had earlier established small collections of books on merchant ships for the use of the seamen.

Impressive hours of service were offered, including Sunday afternoons and late opening until 10pm. A programme of talks and lectures was held and schools were able to borrow items from the museum. Modern technology meant that the building had its own generator so as not be dependant on an external energy supply. Formal opening took place on 25th October 1892 with Lord Roseberry, Foreign Secretary and Chairman of the London County Council as the guest of honour.

By the end of 1892, there were 2,500 members including actors, comedians, diamond cutters, lard refiners, leather merchants, at least three journalists and my favourite, "ladies with no occupation given". This impressive list tells only part of the story of the library's role in its community which by 1914 is said to have included 90% of the total Jewish population of the UK. Evidence of its impact is borne out by the stellar list of writers, artists and future academics who made use of it during their youth. It is known that artist Mark Gertler borrowed art books from the library and practised drawing in the reading room. Fellow Whitechapel Boy David Bomberg was also a user.

Playwright Arnold Wesker used the library as a child and later spoke about borrowing and enjoying The Wind In The Willows. Fellow playwright and novelist Bernard Kops was also a regular user and loved the place so much he wrote a poem in its honour as well as a play set within the building. Child psychologist and author of The Ascent Of Man, Jacob Bronowski studied there and mathematician Selig Brodetsky learned English in the library. Born in Russia and one of thirteen children, Brodetsky had a fine career in academia. He studied at Cambridge, lectured at Bristol University, held a chair in Applied Mathematics at the University of Leeds and for a time was President of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. East End chroniclers Simon Blumenfeld and Willy Goldman also studied there.

Perhaps the most famous former user was poet and painter Isaac Rosenberg. The child of poor Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, he was also the author of some of the most famous poetry to emerge from the First World War and was tragically killed in action on 1st April 1918. He is memorialised with a Blue Plaque on the exterior of the building. The achievements of Rosenberg and other writers and artists led to the library being referred to as the university of the ghetto.  Most of the users would have lived in dark, overcrowded and noisy conditions with no space for quiet study, reading or reflection. The library provided this and enabled some of them to go on to great things whilst to others it was a place to find peace and cultural enrichment. Lack of space at home remains one of the main reasons why people come to public libraries today and competition for study space can be fierce.

In 1900 the library came under the auspices of the former Metropolitan Borough of Stepney. Over the next few decades a large collection of Judaica was developed, lending became open access in 1922 and in 1930 a children's library was established in the basement.  Aldgate East Underground Station lies beneath the building and in 1937 a street level entrance to the Tube was inserted into the facade. The East End was severely bombed during the Second World War and damage was sustained to the second floor in 1940. From the late 1940's onwards the neighbourhood began to change with the large Jewish community moving away and being replaced by newcomers, particularly from the Sylhet region of Bangladesh which until 1971 was part of Pakistan.

Levels of use fell in the decades following the War and when I first visited in the early 1990's the building was in a poor state of repair and in need of investment. By this time, Whitechapel was under the control of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, one of the poorest areas in the city and one whose library service was amongst the least used in London. The Council undertook a re-branding exercise, closing some libraries and opening a series of modern, purpose built Idea Stores, combining library services with adult education and expanded access to technology. Whitechapel Library was closed in 2005 and was replaced by the much larger and more strategically located Idea Store, close to Whitechapel Station, a street market and the area's main shopping facilities. On the last day of service, an evening event was held to commemorate the contribution of the library to the local community. It featured performances by Anna Tzelniker, the last active performer of the once great Yiddish theatre and a reading by Bernard Kops of  his poem, Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East.

The building received Grade II listed status in 1990. After closure it was acquired by the neighbouring Whitechapel Art Gallery which also has a long tradition of serving the local community and has exhibited works by the aforementioned Gertler, Bomberg and Rosenberg. On a personal note, most of my career was spent working in and managing public libraries. Researching for this post I realised that at different times I either worked in or was responsible for six of his London libraries. Is this a record?

Perhaps the last word should go to Bernard Kops.

Monday, 29 June 2020

Whitechapel Road - The Working Lads' Institute

It's interesting that we can walk past a building hundreds of times without really noticing it and then one day it catches the eye. I must have walked past the former Working Lads' Institute on Whitechapel Road hundreds, possibly thousands of times but only recently noticed it. It stands next to the main and currently closed entrance to Whitechapel Underground Station, a six storey red brick building, completed in 1885. Designed by Scottish architect George Baines, the facade features Portland and Ancaster stone dressings and a three sided Oriel window flanked by additional bay windows at first floor level. It was formally opened to great fanfare by the Prince and Princess of Wales on 31st October 1885. The Illustrated London News reported that "despite the rain which continued throughout the day, there was an immense assemblage of people along the roadway through which the Royal party had to pass".

The Institute began life as an organisation in 1878, in Mount Place, also in Whitechapel, and was founded by Henry Hill, a successful merchant in the City of London. Hill's objective was "to supply a counter attraction to the low music halls and other east end resorts for the young which are so fatal to their social and moral well-being". To this end a library, lecture hall, classrooms, laundry, kitchen, gymnasium and swimming baths were provided for the area's young working class men. The lecture hall could accommodate up to 600 people and boasted stained glass windows with representations of art, religion and industry as well as nine semi-circular lights with images of the seasons and sports. The main facilities were advertised by the words Lecture Hall, Gymnasium and Swimming Bath carved in stone above the two entrances at street level on Whitechapel Road. It was these signs that finally drew my attention to the building and led me to notice the much larger Working Lads' Institute sign emblazoned across the full width of the building at the upper level. How did I ever miss it? 

The total cost of the project was £12,000, a significant sum for the time. Hill did not manage to raise all of the required capital before construction started and so the works were completed in two phases. He managed to secure additional funds from Reverend Thomas Jackson who ran an Evangelical Mission in Clapton and had a history of working with the poor. Jackson was to have a long association with the Institute and eventually purchased the building in 1896, saving it from the threat of closure due to a constant lack of funds.  He was influential in increasing the organisation's work with young homeless men. From the beginning, accommodation was offered for those in need with an initial 24 beds and space to expand to 60. Additional beds were made available to young men aged 17-21 including some who were referred by the courts with Jackson sometimes acting as probation officer. However, it is important to note that not all of those who made use of the hostel had been involved in criminal activity and that some would have committed what would be considered very minor offences today.

As well as providing education, leisure and refuge to young men, the Institute occasionally hosted other activities, including in 1888 the inquests into the deaths of Mary Ann Nicholls (also known as Polly Nicholls) and Annie Chapman, two victims of the Whitechapel Murderer.  

The Institute no longer operates from Whitechapel Road and has been renamed the Whitechapel Mission. The building now contains a number of flats with retail units at ground floor level. The facade was restored in 2012 as part of a wider improvement project linked to the London Olympics. This online edition of Spitalfields Life includes pictures of some of the lads who attended activities or lived there as well as of one of the stained glass windows. It also makes reference to the Institute being one of the first organisations of its type to admit Black men and includes a photograph of Reverend Jackson with a group of Black soldiers at the time of the First World War. So much history in one building. 

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

The Ahuja Family And Early Burmese Photography.

From 1824 to 1937, Burma (today's Myanmar) was ruled as part of British India. It was then governed as a separate entity until independence in 1948. During the colonial period, many Indians came to live, work and establish businesses in the country. It is estimated that there are over 900,000 people of Indian ethnicity living in Myanmar today, many of them the descendants of those who came in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Ahuja family arrived in Rangoon (now Yangon) in 1885 when D.A. Ahuja acquired the Kundandass and Co. photographic studio. There is a division of opinion about where the family came from. In his excellent book, Burmese Photographers, Lukas Birk suggests they came from Shikapur, Sindh in what is now Pakistan but at least one other source refers to them as Punjabis. 

1901 was an important year for the business. In addition to changing its name to the D.A. Ahuja Studio, our man published a guide to "Photography in Burmese for Amateur Photographers" and his nephew Tickamdas Naraindas Ahuja (T.N.) joined him from India. The studio thrived, attracting customers from the British community as well as from local families who came to be photographed or to buy cameras and photographic paper imported from India. The success of the business is demonstrated through the studio being located on the first floor of a building at 47 Sule Pagoda Road, in the heart of downtown Yangon. There is anecdotal evidence of the business surviving there until the 1960's.

Around 1906, D.A. acquired a number of pictures taken by German photographer Philip Adolphe Klier. The collection included architectural and highly stylised ethnographic pictures taken in different parts of Burma. Ahuja began publishing the pictures as postcards but there seems to have been some problem about how he acquired these works and in 1907, Klier took successful legal action against him. Losing the legal battle was only a temporary setback as in 1909 Ahuja purchased the archive of Italian photographer Felice Beato and also became the legal owner of Watts and Skeen, a studio established by Frederick Skeen in 1887. The Skeen family also had a photographic business in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Beato's archive included landscape works, stylised portraits and also war photography from Japan, China and the Middle East. Klier died in 1911 and from 1914, Ahuja resumed producing some of his pictures as postcards. He was to publish 600 cards over the next 20 years, some of which can be found at card sales or occasionally on eBay. The cards were sent to Germany to be chromo-lithographed, ensuring the best quality finishes.

The postcards cover a wide range of subjects. There are several studio shots of elegant women, slightly stiff looking family groups, important monuments, snake charmers and dancers. There is also at least one card showing prisoners in Rangoon jail queueing to collect their food which whilst fascinating is an unusual image to send to the family back home.

D.A.'s nephew, T.N. opened his own studio in 1916 with a shop at 86 Phayre Street (now Pansodan Road) where he operated as an agent for Kodak products. There is some evidence that he also served as magistrate. Business was interrupted in 1942 when the family fled before the arrival of the Japanese but they quickly returned to reopen the studio at the end of the war. In 1948 T.N.'s son, R.A. Ahuja opened another studio at 386 Dalhousie Road (now Maha Bandoola Road). The store became the sole agent in Burma for the sale of Gevaert products and operated until 2007. R.A. the last remaining member of the Ahuja family in Burma died in 2014, bringing almost 130 years of their presence in the country to an end. The date of D.A.'s death is unknown.

The images included in this post are from reprints of the cards I purchased from the Yangon Heritage Trust at 22-24 Pansodan Road in 2017. The Trust is a great source of information on Yangon's built heritage. As well as selling books, maps and postcards, it stages occasional exhibitions and guided walks.  I have a habit of buying postcards on my travels and then putting them "somewhere safe" when I get home. During the lockdown I have been sorting through my collection and rediscovered my Ahuja cards. I also turned back to the already mentioned  excellent book by Lukas Birk which has a short section on the Ahujas.  Birk is an accomplished traveller and photographer whose projects have included research into the now almost disappeared box cameras of Kabul. 

D.N. Ahuja also produced postcards featuring images from India, some of which may have been his won work. You can see some of them on the Paper Jewels website.

It is not possible to confirm which of the images featured in this post are the work of the Ahuja family or are from other photographer's archives.

You can see more pictures from Myanmar here.

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Postcards From My Hometown - 2, The Bathing Pool

I was born and spent the first 20 years of my life in Redcar. I have fond memories of spending time in the area known as the Coatham Enclosure with its indoor swimming baths, boating lake and amusement arcade which included a large fairground ride known locally as the "mad mouse". These were the remnants of a much larger range of facilities constructed in the late 1920's when a major building programme funded by the local authority provided work for men made jobless after the General Strike of 1926. There were no state funded benefits at that time and rather than have families seek relief from the Guardians of the Poor Law, the Council established construction jobs with wages funded through the rates.

The original complex included an outdoor swimming facility called the Bathing Pool. It is astonishing to think that during the 1930's, Redcar's residents and visitors could benefit from three swimming pools. As well as the indoor baths, demolished in 1978, there were two outdoor facilities - a large one for adults and confident swimmers and a smaller, rectangular pool for children and learners. A small charge was levied, 4d for adults and 2d for children, whilst towels and swimwear could be hired at a small cost. Both pools were eventually closed. An outdoor roller skating rink was built over the larger one whilst the smaller one was built over to provide a car park for the indoor pool. I have vague memories of the closed skating rink and of trying to see over the surrounding wall with friends. This too is long gone.

The postcard featured in this piece shows an image of the Bathing Pool including swimmers, spectators and a daring diver launching himself from the highboard. When I bought the card my first thoughts were that this was an image of the Boating Lake due to the impressive buildings of Newcomen Terrace that can be seen in the background. However, a little online research and help from my brother soon uncovered the story of the long lost Bathing Pool. The site is now occupied by a youth facility know as The Hub. Whilst researching for this post I came across a couple of short films of Redcar in the 1930's the first of which includes some footage of a beauty contest at the Bathing Pool. You can see them here.

The card is post marked 8th July 1943 and was posted during the Second World War.  It was sent by one Nora to a Miss Jean Horn in Guildford, Surrey. Nora has written a chatty message saying she is on a course which apparently was "terribly stiff and means working all the time, night and day". She asks to be remembered to some friends and is anxious to make it clear that the picture on the card is from before the war "so don't think it is lovely here". She notes her temporary address on the card which suggests that Nora was in Redcar was connected to the R.A.F. so she may have served in the armed forces.

As with the card in my previous post, this one was purchased from the wonderful Saltburn Framing Company, located in Saltburn Station. More postcards coming soon.

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